Thursday, July 2, 2009

Museum visitation is falling but what are we doing about it?

I’ve heard anecdotally for some time that the number of young people attending classical music concerts is dwindling, and certainly the lack of interest from my children in such despite studying music through to final year at school has reinforced this. But now out of the US has come news of double-digit rates of decline for classical music, jazz, opera, musical theater, ballet and dramatic plays attendance since 1982.

The same study has unfortunately also shown that the percentage of eighth-graders who reported that they visited an art museum or gallery with their classes dropped from 22 percent in 1997 to 16 percent in 2008. As the National Endowment for the Arts has also released new data showing that fewer adults were choosing an art museum as a leisure-time destination, the trend seems to be all downwards. In 1992 26% of adults reported that they visited an art museum, but the number for 2008 dropped to 23%. The exception, perhaps not surprisingly, was in Washington DC, where 40% of adults said they had visited a museum in 2008, reflecting tourism and free admission at most major museums.

I can’t lay my hands on equivalent data for Australian museums , but I’ve seen similar in relation to falling numbers visiting historic house museums. At the National Trust of Australia (NSW) we’ve realized we cannot buck the world-wide trend so we are looking at different ways of making the house museums work. This ranges from encoraging affinity groups to use them ( e.g. local community book clubs) to maximizing opportunities to use the site for functions/ hire out in innovative ways. Are museums doing the same, i.e. being innovative with the use of their resources? I immediately think of where the web fits into all of this. We know that there is evidence that the more activity there is around museum web sites, the more physical visits seem to occur. And those physical visits can be spread more widely - places like the Powerhouse Museum are regularly opening up their stores to provide greater access to their collections.
What we do unfortunately know is that government funding bodies still set great store by numbers coming through the door, so these falling trends do not bode well for the sector.

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